Gamers8- How the Esports Winter might end up Scorched

Mush 2023-08-19 11:18:28

The Gamers8 "gaming festival" is in full swing. If you follow any Major Esport, this won't be news to you. There are huge tournaments for nearly all of them in the multiple weeks of competitions, with prize pools and day rates so obscene that most moral compasses are quickly replaced by whatever they decide to spend the bag on. l could go on and on about the hypocrisy of broadcast talent, teams and players from most Major Esports who played the role of "ally" on Social Media before putting on their kaffiyeh when they arrive at Riyadh, but Richard Lewis has been doing that better than anyone else could. In this article, I'll focus on something that has me puzzled. Remember when people actually stood by their morals and pushed the NEOM deal away from the LEC back in 2020? What if I told you that there were two official RIOT tournaments at Gamers8 just a few weeks ago? If you didn't know this before, don't worry, seems like that's the case for most people. This leads me to the question that got me started on this: where is the outrage?  

NEOM deal refresher

  First things first, so let's go over the NEOM deal again. Jacob Wolf wrote an article back in July 2020 detailing how RIOT Games were forced to end a Saudi Arabian sponsorship deal with the LEC just a few hours after announcing it.  

(Image via Riot Games)

The public announcement that Saudi Arabia's city development project was sponsoring the European League was received with outrage from both fans and talent. People felt that a country with such backwards views on matters like the LGBTQIA+ community, censorship, etc should not be allowed to enter a space like the LEC. As Wolf points out in his aforementioned article, this wasn't RIOTs first offence. Apart from being Tencent-owned, which makes any human-rights campaigning from the company immediately hypocritical, RIOT had hosted a tournament in Riyadh previously.
Riot was one of several American-based companies that drew criticism in 2018 and 2019 for hosting events in Saudi Arabia following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
The company hosted "The Nexus", an event that was part of The Riyadh Season, and it ended up panning out as a sort of proto-Gamers8.  

What is Gamers8 exactly?

  Gamers8 is the new iteration of "The Riyadh Season", a massive event spanning multiple esports titles, lasting nearly two months and with 45 million USD prizepool up for grabs. The money given to winners of the tournaments is often multiples times more than what is present at a "normal" competition for each specific game. As an example, Street Fighter 6 had a prizepool of 70600 USD at EVO, prestigious competition. The Gamers8 tournament for the title had 1 million USD to shell out.  

(Image  via Gamers8)

This is essentially a massive "esportswashing" event. Described in their own website as "The world’s largest gaming and esports event and the destination for the world’s elite esports champions and gaming universe lovers", it is Saudi Arabia's attempt at paying their way into international relevance in the industry. The massive prizepools attract most of the big organisations in each esport title and, consequently, a lot of viewership. In Dota 2, for example, Riyadh Masters was the most watched tournament of the year, even though it doesn't even give any DPC points or provide a qualification to The International 2023. The CS:GO tournament happening now already reached 429k peak viewers, even though playoffs have only just begun.  

How does RIOT Games fit into the equation?

RIOT set the precedent with the cancellation of the NEOM deal in 2020, but we all know that the company isn't very good at following its own rules. The developers hosted two tournaments for their biggest esports titles at Gamers8.  

Gamers8(Image via Gamers8)

Back in July they hosted a Game Changer tournament for Valorant, which is a women's competition. Four teams attended, two from Saudi Arabia, one from Tunisia and the last one from the United Arab Emirates.  

Gamers8(Image via Gamers8)

A little more than a week ago, they also hosted and ERL (European Regional League). This was the playoffs for the MENA (Middle-East and North-Africa) regional league. There were also four teams attending, but this time only one of them was from Saudi Arabia. Both regional tournaments include multiple countries, which means that there was no need for the competitions to be held in Saudi Arabia. Hosting an event in the country is bad enough by itself, but doing it at Gamers8 specifically after the NEOM deal fell through feels like a deliberate attempt from RIOT to walk their way back into a similar deal with the Saudis. The gaming festival is essentially hosted by the Saudi Arabian state. The main sponsors are the Savvy Games Group, which needs no introduction, and Qiddya, a project extremely similar to NEOM. The investment company is making a "mega-project" which is described as "building the capital of Entertainment, Sports and the Arts". The chairman of the company is, obviously, the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

Gamers8(Image via Gamers8)

A lot of the other sponsors are also Saudi-owned businesses and brands.  

Is RIOT the last piece of the Saudi puzzle?

  Saudi Arabia already controls a huge part of the esports pie. They own ESL and Faceit, which allows them to control most of the CS:GO calendar. This Gamers8 edition also showed that they have some of the biggest tournaments in games like Dota 2, Rocket League, Fortnite, PUBG, Tekken7, Street Figher 6, Rainbow Six Siege, FIFA, Starcraft II, and more. If they get a foothold into RIOT Games' League of Legends and Valorant, as they attempted previously with NEOM, they'll have their hands in all Major Esports titles. The cancellation of the sponsorship deal back in 2020 gave me some hope that this might not happen, at least for a while, but this Gamers8 showing took that hope away. As has been widely reported, the LCS is in deep trouble. Viewership has been on a steady decline, teams make no money and are starting to sell their spots (or try to) and RIOT's supposed solutions don't seem to work. How could these problems go away? With money, of course. Who has a seemingly infinite supply of money to spend? Well, probably the company who bought ESL and Faceit for an obscene one billion USD, right? How excited are fans for an LCS 2024/2025 playoff finals in Riyadh at Gamers8?  

An overreaction?

  This might seem like an overreaction at first, especially if you're not familiar with what Saudi Arabia has been doing in the world of "real sports". As reported by journalist Karim Zidan on his Substack, Saudi Arabia and similar countries have gotten such control over multiple sports that human-rights organizations are trying to stop them from owning so many Premier League teams. The Saudi Arabian football league now has international superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Neymar JR, etc. As Zidan mentions, in other sports their impact is even higher.
The kingdom’s sports investments also include biannual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) shows, a yearly Formula 1 Grand Prix, the world’s richest horse race, heavyweight boxing showdowns and a recent merger (read: hostile takeover) with the PGA Tour. These unprecedented investments in the global sports industry—investments that surpass $8 billion—are part of the kingdom’s effort to increase its soft power on the world stage, a strategy that appears to be working.
If this is a country with such powerful investments, how unrealistic is an LCS deal looking like in comparison?  

A future to avoid

  People often try to convince themselves that countries like Saudi Arabia getting more involved in international affairs is good. "They'll adapt to us" say the Americans and Europeans, "their views of the world will evolve." Tencent and China have shown us time and time again that this is not the case, and that the contrary often ends up happening (remember Blitzchung?). But you don't have to go back that far to be reminded of this. Saudi Arabia themselves have been showing how things really end up happening when these takeovers are complete. The Guardian recently reported on how "Vice blocked news stories that could offend Saudi Arabia".
The media company recently signed a lucrative partnership deal with the MBC Group, a media company controlled by the Saudi government, to establish a joint venture in the Middle Eastern country. Of the 29 jobs currently advertised on Vice’s careers page, 20 are based in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh.
The biggest developer in Esports is now hosting tournaments in a state-ran "Gaming Festival" and no one even bats an eye. Sure, it wasn't an LEC or LCS finals now, but do we have to wait for that to happen so we can bring the NEOM outrage back? As we saw with the ESL and Faceit acquisition, there's no point in speaking out when the money has already changed hands. It feels more and more that, in attempting to escape the cold of the Esports Winter, the industry is walking into the Esports Desert. So ask yourself, is this what you want Esports to become?
Featured image courtesy of FaZe. If you enjoyed this article, check out the author @mushwrites. Check out our main page for more Esports content.

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